Whose Homework Is It Anyway?

Amy Dunkin

I'll never forget my son's first homework assignment. He was three years old and he came home from preschool with a blank cardboard cutout of a child that he was supposed to decorate to look like himself. Seriously thinking that this was a three-year-old's project, I sat him at a table with crayons, markers, and glitter glue and told him to draw a picture of himself on the boy.

When he was finished, he had made some colorful scribbles to represent the clothes, a crude face, and a few black lines around the head for hair. The next day he proudly brought it to school--and I just about wanted to die. As I looked around the room at the other kids' projects, I saw works of art like you wouldn't believe: mini-me's with custom-made clothing and shoes and lifelike faces and hair. One even had a baseball cap that had been cut to fit the two-dimensional head. After the teacher hung up all the projects on the wall, Eli looked them over and said, "Mommy, my boy looks naked." What I wanted to say back to him was, "Honey, your boy is the only one that was made by a child."

Ever since, I've been struggling with how much I should get involved in my children's homework. I want to help, but I don't want to do it for them. I want to inspire them to do a good job, but I want the end result to reflect their sensibilities and skills, not mine.

My instinct is to back off--to let my sons do the work, then to correct the obvious mistakes at the end. The teachers tell me that's exactly what I should be doing. They say they can always tell when the parents have done the work--and it never helps the child when mom or dad takes over.

What is it about parents that makes them feel they should do their kids' homework? Do they really think their kids will be at a disadvantage if the teacher sees a wrong answer, or if the grammar in an essay isn't perfect? Is this just overachieving by proxy?

I think we need to step back and let our children make their age-appropriate mistakes. Let them see they don't have to be perfect. We can coach them up to a point without being overly interfering. For example, point out a spelling error but then don't spell the word. Have them sound it out, or look it up in the dictionary. Suggest some points they can make in a report, then let them write it in their own words. If there are some grammatical errors, let the teacher see them so she/he can know how to guide your child.

Sometimes you just have to hold yourself back. Yesterday my son was putting together his project for the school science fair and he was gluing some pages to a presentation board. I was hovering about watching him work and started making some suggestions: "Why don't you move that page over here?" "Don't put so much glue on the back."

After a few minutes of this, he looked up at me and said, "Mom, I can do this myself." So I went into the kitchen and left him alone. When he finished, the project looked great--and it was all his own doing. As it should be.

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